Our guest today is ActiveCampaign’s President, Sameer Kazi.
Sameer is responsible for guiding the core operations and helping prepare the company for its next phase of growth. He is a deeply experienced software executive and operator with global P&L and public company experience helping growth stage & mature SaaS businesses scale revenue and operations.
Sameer is also co-founder and Managing Director of Operating Capital, an investment firm focused on helping operating teams at B2B SaaS companies win through capital, operating best practices, and leveraging our global talent and industry network.
Prior to ActiveCampaign, Sameer served as CEO and board member of Cheetah Digital, interim CEO and Executive Chairman at Simply Measured which was acquired by Sprout Social; as a board member at Emarsys which was acquired by SAP, and as EVP at Salesforce.com; and ExactTarget which was acquired by Salesforce in 2013 for $2.5B.
Sameer holds a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Northwestern University.
In This Conversation We Discuss:
- How to pursue the right investors
- What knowledge Sameer took from his MBA into the business world
- How Sameer divided up the roles between the CEO and President
- How to know when you’re knowledgeable enough to start making decisions
Connect with Sameer Kazi: LinkedIn
Active Campaign – https://activecampaign.com
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I am super excited about this episode. You are going to love it. It is Sameer Kazi, who is the President of ActiveCampaign. He has a great background and used to work with ExactTarget, Scott Dorsey. He was part of the leadership team over at ExactTarget when they were acquired by Salesforce for $2.7 billion. He was then an Executive VP at Salesforce and built another company that sold Sprout Social. He is now President of ActiveCampaign. He’s got his MBA.
We talk a lot about his leadership ideas, his focus on execution around deep product domain expertise, focusing on financial acumen, and teaching all of his leadership team some stuff on the financials. It’s interesting to hear somebody who was at the most senior level and how he came into a company as well. They had 800 employees and he was able to join the company as the President. He’s also the first president in history for ActiveCampaign, the CEO Jason, bringing in Sameer as President. You will enjoy this episode and, hopefully, you enjoy it and share it as well.
Sameer, thank you for joining us. Welcome to the show.
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having us.
I’m looking forward to chatting with you to learning from you. I know that we talked briefly before getting on. I mentioned our company the COO Alliance is a client of ActiveCampaign, the user of ActiveCampaign, but I will get into that and ask some questions about it. Why don’t you talk a little bit about how you got to where you are now with the organization, and where you got to your role as a CEO and go down a couple of rabbit holes from there?
I’m happy to do it and thanks for being a customer of ActiveCampaign. We appreciate it. I began my journey in software in SaaS in particular right after B-school with a tiny little company that was based out of Indianapolis, Indiana called ExactTarget.
That’s Scott Dorsey.
Scott was our CEO at the time at ExactTarget. A terrific guy. I was barely early at the company. There were sub $50 million in revenue. I was part of the executive team and what a trajectory that company had. Some part of this was probably not known in the market, but when I got there in June of 2008, they had filed their S1 public.
Imagine that in 2008 a sub $50 million company was contemplating public. They file their S1. Everything, all of the markets, including the equities markets went to hell that year. Late in 2008, we decided to yank our filing. I finished my MBA. I joined what I thought was an exciting and interesting company. Not having had the experience of what it meant to file or to take a company public, I thought, “I wonder if the party is over.”
In 2009, what became evident was that the trajectory of the company had not changed. We were still growing about 55% or 56%. By the end of 2009, we had raised $200 million of venture which was a giant sum for 2009. We took that company public in 20212. I had the incredible opportunity to move to London and run all of our EMEA operations.
While I was in London in 2013, we sold a company to Salesforce for $2.7 billion. That was my first foray and experience into SaaS and what that feeling was, which was pretty magical, honestly. The thing you know and most people may not know about being an operator in a fast-growing business is that most people see the endpoints. Their feelings always are like, “What a path that was.” What they don’t see are the trials and tribulations between those two endpoints that get you there, which is formative for me.
I want to talk about that because everyone sees what overnight success you were but they never see how long it took to get to the night before. I want to talk about that. Scott and I met several years ago when he was an Entrepreneurs’ Organization member, I don’t remember where we met, but we knew each other when the company was much smaller and he was not as untouchable as he is now. We talked about a couple of years ago as well, but a great guy. What about since then? Since selling to Salesforce I have got some questions around that as well. What did you do from there and then in between there and ActiveCampaign?
My reputation is always been one of an operator. I’m a pretty sleeve-rolled-up and sweat-the-details guy. As soon as I left and the word got out, I started getting bombarded by sponsors of all kinds of venture or private equity who wanted me to help with diligence with deal evals. They are wondering if I was interested in advisory work, board work, or things of that nature.
We were still in London at the time. We moved back to the in 2015, and by then I’d done some work with KKR and their growth team in London helping them look at deals. We looked at a deal in Tel Aviv together and then came back to the US. Some of that sponsor’s attention continued. It’s very flattering. I teamed up with Bessemer and a few other venture firms to help one of their portfolio companies as interim CEO for a year.
I brought in a CEO and then we ultimately ended up selling that business simply measured to a company based here in Chicago called Sprout Social. At the tail end of that, my general feeling was always that I wanted to go buy a business. One of the co-founders at ExactTarget, Peter McCormick who is both a great friend and my business partner now and I partnered with a private equity sponsor to buy a business from Experian, a global business with 1,600 employees, just shy of $300 million within revenue.
What Peter and I did was we raised our funds as SPV co-invested with equity and ran this business that’s now called Cheetah Digital for the last few years. We ended up merging that business with a company called CM Group earlier this 2022 in February. Between those two bookends, my experience was in high-growth venture and then LBO turnaround private equity, which both experiences and learnings were fascinating in terms of how one has to contort oneself to meet the needs of both the market and the business.
I have known ActiveCampaign for several years because one of the first investors in the business, a company by the name of Silversmith Capital based out of Boston. When they invested, the person who had the diligence in charge there, and I worked together while I was at Salesforce. When he invested in ActiveCampaign, he reached out to me and told me about the Chicago-based interesting little $30 million company that he was investing in. When the opportunity came around earlier this 2022, and when Jason, our CEO, and I started chatting, there was lots of familiarity and I have been in this MarTech space for several years, so it seemed like a very natural fit.
Is ActiveCampaign still privately held?
Indeed. It is.
What was it like working with Bessemer and what was it like working with KKR? The KKR that I knew was from the late ’80s. They are a different firm now, aren’t they?
The first time I ever walked into a KKR office in London, I sat down. I met the partner and the then VP, these two gents. The first question out of my mouth was and I looked around the fancy office and said, “This is KKR. Barbarians at the gate. KKR like that.” They are little younger than I am. I’m like, “Don’t you guys buy giant companies using leverage and then try to optimize them? Why aren’t we talking about a growth investment? What’s going on?”
What I’d inadvertently fallen into was the fact that KKR back in 2014 decided they wanted to get into the growth investing business. What they did at the time was they took $500 million off their balance sheet in Europe and started investing in early-stage but growth-focused businesses and I thought it was the most incredible thing.
Since then, they have probably done, I don’t know exactly, maybe 2 or 3 growth funds and have their portfolio of growth investing extends not in Europe and EMEA, but in the US and Asia. They now have overlay partners that look at technology and growth investing all over the world. It’s been an incredible run for them.
That was who I remembered them as barbarians at the gate as well. That must be weird for them to have to reinvent as an organization too, but you are coming in after that. Any lessons that you learned from working with Bessemer that you carry with you? I’m sure there were lots. What were a couple of key ones?
While at ExactTarget, we had an incredible board and lots of fantastic investors. I had a chance to firsthand observe the dynamics of what a venture board was like. With Bessemer, because of my interim CEO status, the proximity became even closer. In the context of a business where growth was declining venture investors would come in at different points and times. The life cycle of that business was trying to decide what to do with that business.
It’s not dissimilar to what’s happening in the market with a number of venture businesses where growth isn’t what everybody anticipated it to be. Many companies have an interesting journey in 2023 with their venture investors on how they manage cash and how the business succeeds or not. At the time, what I observed on that board especially was in spite of having different points of entry into the business, how that board came together for the benefit of the founders, and the business itself to try to figure out a path for that business, and no stone was left unturned in terms of trying things.
My natural inclination was to double down on product innovation, bring that to market, and try to jumpstart growth and the support that I got from not just Bessemer but all of the other investors. It was a learning moment for me to understand how investors can contribute to helping businesses move forward.
Last question about your background and then I want to ask a couple of more questions about ExactTarget and we will fast forward to where we are now. Doing your MBA, what do you think you pulled from that experience? I don’t hear as many of the twenty-somethings talking about going to business school anymore. Why is that? Are you noticing anything there?
My B-school experience was excellent in that. What became evident to me very quickly in my time there was that those two years were an opportunity to get to know my cohort well and learn from them. Get deep in technical skills that I didn’t have. I have an engineering background so finance accounting, entrepreneurial finance, and valuations, those things weren’t core to the toolkit that I had.
Lastly, the piece of paper that the credential meant something in terms of creating momentum for one in the marketplace. The best evidence of that is I met Scott Dorsey way before I ever joined ExactTarget through a mutual introduction. He and I went to the same business school and that mutual connection helped us to stay connected after that, which was interesting in order to prioritize those three things.
The thing that most people don’t know is that I spent independently during B-school, applying my B-school learnings towards thinking about a SaaS business at a time when not many people were thinking of SaaS. This was 2006 and 2007. I will go out on a limb and say that in 2006, I knew Salesforce’s income statement probably better than 90% of people at Salesforce at the time.
I forensically went through that income statement to try to understand levers in a SaaS business. The big finding for me at the time was realizing that Salesforce spent 54% of its revenues on sales and marketing, which is a gigantic number. To contemplate a business that was growing 30% or 35% organically at the time, it was much smaller than it is right now. To think about that 54% and say that is all well and good as long as growth continues, but the minute growth stops or slows down, the board’s direction will be to pull back that lever of expenses that are all OPEX below the gross margin line and let those dollars flow down to EBITDA.
The inspiration for that thought process was John Chambers at Cisco, who very famously even in the early ’90s said that 92% of all Cisco revenues came from the channel. Back in 2006, Salesforce didn’t have a great partner system, a channel, and a network like that. My big idea at the time when no one was thinking about SaaS was what if you built a partner that did some of the professional services that Salesforce was hungry for, but it’s that partner’s expertise that was activating a distribution channel for a large ISV. Having a dual-pronged valuation technique. One that was services-based and one that was SaaS reseller-based.
I was excited about it. I wrote a business plan around it. I graduated. My wife was pregnant with our twins. I told her that I was quitting my job to raise money for a startup. She looked at me shocked and said, “Go for it.” I look back at the time and I realized I was naive. There was no way I was going to raise money, and it’s a very different market than it’s right now or a few years ago, but in that process, I got to meet Scott and then the rest is history.
Fast forward to where you are now. What was it that got you to join ActiveCampaign and why do you think they came after you? I don’t imagine you saw a job posting on Indeed.
I was having a lot of fun while my last company’s transaction process was in motion. I had come out of a pretty intense five-year slog of turnaround market shaping. I was taking some time to reconnect with myself as a human being, reconnect with my kids, get back in shape, and do all of these things that happened as part of a midlife crisis. It was fantastic.
My wife and I traveled. It was great and very fortunate. I started getting inbounds from high-quality recruiters and one of them, Evan Grossman at True reached out to me to talk about this particular opportunity and he said, “I don’t know if you know, there’s a Chicago-based company. They are looking for a president. How do you feel about that?”
I said, “I’d love to explore it,” and he said, “Why the enthusiasm?” I said, “I know the space very well. I have come out of a CEO job where I have learned a lot and I feel like I could be helpful, but it would be helpful for me as well to take a little bit of a step and be surrounded by a team.” The reputation of the company proceeded, meaning is a growth business that had grown very rapidly in the 3 or 4 years leading up to me getting the opportunity in hand, and then I had a chance to speak with our CEO Jason VandeBoom. He and I spoke for 4 or 5 months about the opportunity. Every few weeks we’d have a little chat in this conference room about the state of the business and what was going on.
Jason is incredible, both entrepreneur, founder, and CEO with a giant product vision and a giant vision about what the company is out there in the market doing. It’s very inspirational. Also, what I found was we were complimentary because I have experienced fast growth. ActiveCampaign is on a fast-growth track. There are several things that are imperfect in a company that’s growing as rapidly as we are.
My deep passion in life is to fix things and optimize them for even better growth. What we found in our conversations was I have some expertise and the company has some needs. Jason and I have very good chemistry and our ability to work together to partner together to impact the business has a lot of potential. I’m now several months into my venture here.
How did you divide up the roles and responsibilities between the CEO and the president? You are the president of the organization. How did you divide that up?
One of the great things about maturing, getting older, and having seen a few things is very few things for me or anyone should be about empire building or span of control. What I said to Jason was, I’m about improving the growth trajectory and about making decisions to improve the business more generally and I care deeply about that.
To that end, whatever he wanted in terms of construction was okay with me as long as I had the opportunity to ask a bunch of questions, go deep into any part of the business, and then prioritize things that needed to happen. The ultimate division of power was purely a conversation. This is the first time Jason has hired a president and so I feel very respectful of what he’s accomplished as a business.
I asked a bunch of questions with lots of specificity. When he would talk about a project, I would say, “Do you want me to own that and for you to have oversight? Do you want to own it and for me to suggest things that you should do with lots of different topics and then we would agree on what that process would be?”
That’s cool. There were processes too. We understand that part. How many employees are at ActiveCampaign now?
We are shy of 800.
As long as I thought would have been. I would have thought you were in the thousands. That’s a nice size.
The beauty of being a product-led growth company. The people equation can be dialed into exactly what that PLG motion needs.
It’s a nice size, but with 800 people there, I’m sure there’s at least 1 person that wanted the job. It wasn’t like there was a job posting on Craigslist. President wanted. When you were coming into the organization, how did you build the relationships with some of those people who were either disappointed they didn’t get the job, or maybe disappointed they don’t get to report to Jason now and they get to report to Sameer, or they have to report to this new guy. How did you manage through that? Can you walk us through that?
To hit the second bit of your question first. In the early days of being here, one of the things that Jason said to me was, “Here are the reporting lines, but I’m also going to continue to do one-on-ones with these individuals.” Trying to test to see what my demeanor about that would be. I was like, “Great. There is no reason to shake things up in a manner that would make people uncomfortable or draw hard lines. We should have to be thoughtful about the change management process.”
As part of that, if it’s more comfortable for you and more comfortable for them for you guys to continue to be in a more structured conversation, I have no issues with that. As a matter of fact, what I would say is that my job generally is to create lots of bandwidth for you, Jason, mentally, so you can focus on the things that are also important to the company.
What will naturally happen is over a period of time, assuming that all of this clicks in, again, it is early days that you can make a decision whether you want to continue to do that in such a structured manner or not. I think that’s what worked well for us, number one. To hit the first part of your question more directly, I’d say there are two parts to that. The first one is conversations matter. The individual connection matters.
I enjoy people. I enjoy their backstory. I like to learn about their families, kids, hobbies, and what motivates them because we spend so much time together. I like the banter and I like the personal connection a lot. That’s important for building and sustaining culture in the business. COVID has been detrimental to that for many companies in a big way.
I found myself fortunate to come in there when we were creating lots of flexibility for folks at the company to say, “If you want to be a remote employee, there’s a set of benefits for you. If you want to work in one of our hubs, there are other benefits for you that you could rely on,” and so we encourage people to come in. Much of the ELT and the folks that reported to me would come in with some frequency and so we had a chance to connect and get to know each other.
The second part of that is in the spirit of sleeves rolled up and sweating the details. It’s also important for me not to take any operational topics at the surface level. I have spent so much of my time in the last few months going deep into so many parts of our business to understand the fundamental mechanics of how that works. That lends itself to people understanding that this is not some role that’s throne-driven where somebody is overseeing part of the business. I’m in it with them to help improve the business and that part of it matters as well.
It tied into one of my questions as well, which was how do you know when you are coming into an organization and you are still trying to learn the company, learn the people and the interpersonal dynamics, the space, and everything else. How do you know when you know enough to start making some decisions versus, “I’m now testing some hypotheses still?”
There’s nothing magical about it at all. One would think there might be. You don’t and you never do. The reality is the business has momentum and you are pulled into having to make decisions with incomplete information in ideal circumstances all of the time, and in those moments you have to draw on both what information you do have, polling the right people in the business around the depth of knowledge that they have, and then relying on your own business instincts and knowledge from the past to do that. The journey of learning is a process.
In the last few months, I can remember feeling passionate about a set of topics and wanting to go deep with our ELT about it, and then a week later understanding that priority didn’t matter as much as these five other topics. Sometimes just taking a beat is helpful in helping you make better decisions in business.
ActiveCampaign, is it an email software? Is it a marketing tool? It’s not CRM but there are some CRM components to it.
It’s a fascinating platform. It’s a customer experience automation business, and I say that very deliberately. If you try to dissect each of the things we do, you can think of it as a B2C email platform a B2B marketing automation platform, a CRM with evolving Salesforce management capabilities an integrations platform, or an automation platform.
What I have internalized about our mission as a product-led growth company is that there is a bunch of technology that’s available to the largest and most sophisticated enterprises in the world. Whether it’s Salesforce or any other large ISV in the market. It’s both unsaid and maybe a little understated. It’s to democratize the most sophisticated technologies for every business person in the world. Our customer base hundred 85,000 accounts is everybody from the solopreneur to microbusiness to a small business to mid-market businesses and larger.
Our platform capabilities are on par with some of the most sophisticated companies in our domain, but we make it accessible and available to everybody, and our mission is to help them solve business problems using our platform. There are some companies that primarily use our set of products for promotional email marketing.
The sophistication journey, many of those companies are on. We help to influence that a little bit because when you have a list and you upload a list and you send a bunch of emails, the very next question that we ask is, “Are you personalizing these messages?” We then say, “You can just do the subject line or content within the message.”
The evolution is if you do that with such frequency, let’s say you do it every few weeks or every week, let’s automate all of that and get that operational overhead off your plate so that the acquisition of subscribers, the management of those subscribers, sending those messages, and collecting all of the tracking data, let that all be automated.
To me, our special sauce is helping individuals, unlike large enterprises where they aim to do marketing. Most folks in business like yours, Cameron, or solopreneurs or businesses, that one individual is doing 50 things during the day all in service of running their business. Anything that can help them automate something so that they can put that on the shelf and not have to think about that for a month or so can be massively beneficial. You take a lot of pride in helping our customers do that.
Also, massively sticky for your customer retention as well. If you can get us using your product and getting stuff automated with either the pre-purchase, purchase, or post-purchase part of the cycle, you have got us. We are not leaving at that point either. Is there any community for ActiveCampaign users? Is there a Facebook group that your users are a part of that you guys are starting to group with? Is it all one-on-one engagement between your reps and the users?
There is a community and Meg who’s been with the company a lot longer than I can weigh in on some of those topics. I would say the thing that I have found works very well is a thing that we have restarted at the business that we call Study Halls. We host these gatherings in cities all over the world where ActiveCampaign users can come in.
We do a little education session. There’s a networking opportunity for many of our customers to hang out together. Sometimes prospects attend those sessions to learn about the product, and it’s massively beneficial to the community at large. The other way that we find in terms of creating connectivity between the communities is we run these content sessions that are webinars or scaled onboardings which are group sessions that you can join virtually. They are all available for free where you can learn about the product and interact with each other as part of this, and I find that to be massively helpful.
I love that it’s with a group as well. Often, we are using any of these SaaS platforms. You feel like the idiot being coached by this guru, but if there’s a classroom of idiots and you go, “We are all in this together.” It humanizes the experience a little bit more too. I like that a lot. You have got the chops. You have had the experience. You have got the theoretical training with your MBA as well. I don’t imagine that you are done growing. What are you doing to continue to grow as a leader?
I feel like I’m every day. Every business is unique in the way that it faces the people and the things that need to happen in business to optimize not just business outcomes, but outcomes for our customers, outcomes for our employees, and then ultimately, outcomes for our investors in that order. I’d say that this process of optimizing both business processes and optimizing levers for returns to the business, is a very important part of what we do, but just as important as how we support employees at the company all over the world.
I’m pretty type A and analytical. It can be easy to get lost in the work of moving the business forward and sometimes the human aspect of bringing people along of helping those people learn new things and evolving them into leaders and folks that can help the business proliferate and thrive and survive. It is as important as any of the work that’s being done now.
I have to continually remind myself about that. Jason and I talk about that all of the time. Our team members all over the world are some of the brightest I have ever had a chance to work with. To help those folks be part of an incredible journey is such an important part of the mission of any leader in the business and I’m learning how to do that every day.
This is a random question, but just because it’s been top of mind with a group that I’m in. Are you guys leveraging AI in any way? AI seems to be the chat in every room I’m a part of. That or psychedelics or so. I don’t know.
We are in experimental ways in the business. I say that very deliberately because so much of what we do for our customers is about helping them optimize their operations. In the early stages of that sophistication is about business rules. If this then that. In the background, as part of our R&D organization, what we are looking at with AI is how the product itself becomes much more predictive so that while observing a user’s journey through the product, the product can by itself prompt you to say, “Let me automate those last ten steps for you,” or, “If I have observed you doing X, the very next five things you need to do are Y, A, B, and C. I can just make that happen.”
When the software starts learning and can adapt for us, that would be cool.
We are on the precipice of making that happen for all of our customers.
My Excel spreadsheets could format themselves. That’s interesting. I never thought about that. That’s super intriguing.
You can see how from the process of automation to binary. If This Then That decision to have the machine learn and apply its learnings in some statistical manner is not a very far leap.
If This Then That is a great software tool. I’m sure you know it. Thoughts around your emerging leaders. My core belief is that a leader’s job is to grow people. I get the feeling that you are aligned with that. Do you have any thoughts about your emerging leaders at ActiveCampaign and what do you do with that group?
The thing that I’d add to this idea is that a leader’s job is to develop people and bring them along, I agree with that. I would say that for me, the bias is a deep immersion into the nature of the business. In many cases, even when a person’s functional role is not connected to finance in some cases or many cases in a business, my passion is to bring those individuals very close to financial operations at the business.
You take smart people who are doing their function well, and then when you overlay the aspect of how financially the business operates, incredible things can happen. It also creates value for them as an individual and changes their trajectory as an individual in the market. Generally, what I see or my own belief in fast-growing businesses is that every day we have an opportunity to write a story.
That story is about strife, overcoming challenges, the grit necessary to get past, important things that are happening, learning new things, and accomplishing business goals. The opportunity to do that exists with leaders across the business and not leaders, but folks at all levels in the business. What everybody is doing every day, not just at ActiveCampaign, but every fast-growing successful company is that they are adding to their story.
At the end of the day, someone who runs a podcast is going to ask them about their story and they are going to have a narrative that could be interesting, and then they are also very deeply impactful for themselves. I see my mission and Jason sees it the same way many of our ELTs do. We are growing the next generation of SaaS leaders, the next generation of MarTech leaders, and the next generation of finance leaders to make an impact in industry in the world.
We used to it at 1-800-GOT-JUNK?. We did open-book financials with all of our employees every month, and we taught them the P&L, the balance sheet, and key ratios. We also tried to teach them how to take the same ideas and bring them into their personal life. I have a household budget. How does your household P&L work?
I was talking to an employee like, “I need more money.” I’m like, “You need to stop those six big-screen TVs. You don’t need all the stuff you are buying yet.” There’s a bit of teaching in that part too. I want to go back to the 21 or 22-year-old Sameer. You are just starting your business career. What advice would you give the younger you that you know to be true now?
I’m an immigrant to the US. I moved to the country when I was seventeen. I went to engineering school. As a course of my academic career, I had to step back from academia for a few years because I couldn’t afford to go, and I have worked full-time since I was eighteen. I didn’t graduate until a few years after being 21 or 22, but my professional career has been going on. I owned a little business in college. I worked for consulting firms.
When I look back at that time, some of the big lessons, outside of observations, the lessons have to be financial. It has to do with how saving early matters, how real estate matters, and how personal finance things can improve the quality of your life moving forward. From a business standpoint. It’s a topic that I internalized later in life, but it has to do with sweating the details.
I’m a big believer that being a specialist matters and that very often young people try to bypass being specialists into being generalists because they want a title of some sort, manager, director, VP, or whatever the case might be. Strength as a leader, a business person, or someone who can impact change impact comes from understanding a domain deeply. I value that. I would have started earlier in that journey if I’d understood that earlier, but I’m happy to bring that to light now.
You are doing fine, Sameer. You are doing a good job. Sameer Kazi, the President of ActiveCampaign. Thank you very much for sharing with us on the show.